Wednesday, December 3, 2008; 7:20 PM
WASHINGTON -- An unauthorized strain of genetically modified cotton was accidentally mixed in with other harvested cotton in Texas last month, but government officials on Wednesday played down any safety concerns.
About a quarter ton of the experimental cotton seed engineered to contain a protein that produces a pesticide was combined with about 60 tons of commercial cotton growing nearby, said Eric Flamm, a senior adviser at the Food and Drug Administration.
The mixture, grown near Lamesa in West Texas, about 300 miles west of Fort Worth, was then stored along with 20,000 tons of commercial cotton seed in a warehouse. Nearly half the crop was processed into cottonseed oil and cotton meal to use as animal feed before officials at Monsanto Co., which grows the experimental cotton on a test plot, realized the mistake.
Monsanto officials notified the government of the error on Nov. 10.
"We're talking about a very small amount, but nevertheless, a material that contains a pesticidal substance and has not been authorized for food or feed use," Flamm said on a conference call with reporters.
Flamm said most of the contaminated crop that was processed into animal feed had already been consumed at cattle feed lots. Two truckloads of the crop were delivered to Mexico, and U.S. officials have notified that country.
The FDA, Environmental Protection Agency and Agriculture Department are investigating to determine what enforcement action is warranted against Monsanto.
Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles said the crop was mistakenly harvested on Oct. 31, and the company learned about it eight days later when field researchers went to check on it and discovered it was not there. It is grown in a research plot adjacent to other cotton and separated by border rows.
"We've taken responsibility for this release and we're actively working to resolve it in a manner that's satisfactory with the USDA and other agencies," Quarles said.
Quarles said the protein has been determined to pose no threat to humans and approved for use in corn, but not yet in cotton.
But one food safety group said the case shows the need for stricter government regulation over experimental crops.
"This incident and a string of others that have come to light over the past two years show that the USDA is fundamentally incapable of protecting our food," said Karen Perry Stillerman, a food analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.